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Of Mates and Mortality

08.07.2001 | BOOKS

by Irvine Welsh
W.W. Norton & Company, 2001

It used to be sniffled in certain quarters that Irvine Welsh was just a "drug" writer or a "youth" writer--someone who created niche entertainment and not Literature, as if young poor people on drugs were unsuitable subjects for art, and even less suitable critics. After reading his 20-megaton debut Trainspotting I thought this was a very hard argument to sustain, and five books later I can't imagine anyone still trying to make the case that Irvine Welsh is anything but a serious writer of the first rank.

Anyway it doesn't really matter; Welsh has achieved a kind of popularity peculiar to the age: the kind of popularity that led his last novel, Filth, to smash the record for paperback sales in Britain in its first weeks. The kind of popularity that forces downtown shops to place his books behind counters, as Welsh has quickly become the most stolen author in history. The kind of popularity that sees advance review copies of his galley proofs sold in clubs for fistfuls of British pounds.

But Welsh's unprecedented popular success with the so-called chemical generation is not grounds for dismissing him as a mere pop phenomenon, the literary equivalent of a Prodigy single. No, a better analogy might be the mass appeal of a young Bob Dylan: proud art burning its way, despite itself, to the top of charts. Even Welsh's weakest effort to date--a trio of comedic novellas published as Ecstasy--was smarter and more entertaining than 90% of the contemporary fiction that boasts accolades from the Sunday review sections.

Welsh is in full storytelling form in his latest novel Glue, which offers a sinewy transgenerational tale of four friends from the West Edinburgh projects. The Story is divided into four sections: 1970, 1980, 1990 and 2000. The first of these serves as an easel for Welsh to sketch the dying values and community structures of the Old Industrial Economy, where crossing a picket line was the highest form of villainy and the Union controlled the factory floor and took care of their own. The parents of Glue's main characters are introduced in the context of a shop floor dispute, which successfully invokes both the period and that almost forgotten Second Wave emotion, solidarity. It is a great intro, and the running commentary on the changing economy and its effects on society in Glue continues Welsh's ongoing project of tracing this hidden history of the last thirty years. An awareness of and connection to the past pervades much of his work, and it is his ability to make the reader feel this history that gives his writing its richness and power.

An unequalled ear for dialogue doesn't hurt either, and Welsh once again creates flesh and blood characters out of their own raw speech. When he's really soaring, the verbal sparks fly like rubber bullets at a Gaza Strip checkpoint, and Glue offers the usual feast of vernacular. (People have said they don't like Welsh because the phonetically written Scottish slang is too hard to read, but it's much easier than Shakespeare, and the rewards greatly outweigh the thirty minutes of effort required to get fluent.)

Glue departs from the Welshian mold in having a substantial amount of non-Scottish speech. The middle section features several German characters and their stilted English, and the second half of the book features Welsh's first important American character. Welsh doesn't seem as sure footed with their voices as with the Edinburgh crew that drive the novel, but they are funny, if not finely chiseled, portraits of how Welsh sees these foreigners. They also reveal, as a two-way mirror might, how Welsh thinks others view his own characters. These windows into outside worlds make Glue feel less claustrophobic than his other books, which is a mixed blessing.

The central cast: Juice Terry Lawson, who got his name selling juice off the backs of lorries, is a fast talking, sharp, brash, womanizing and slightly pathetic figure. Older than his friends, he acts as a bridge to the pre-mobile phone, pre-techno, pre-E days of the speed and beer soaked late 70s. Andrew (Gally) Galloway, the grounding, tragic figure of the story, goes to prison for accidentally injuring his young daughter, comes out full of self-loathing and a minor habit, and then gets HIV and jumps off a bridge. Carl Ewart is a superstar DJ who makes it big and leaves for greener pastures to escape his own ghosts. And Billy "Business" Birell is a would-be championship boxer who develops a thyroid problem, retires and starts a successful bar. Together the friends grow up and apart, ultimately coming back together as they struggle to come to terms with Gally's death and their own personal failures.

Along the way we encounter all of the usual Welshian props: hard drugs, hard sex, hard violence, blurry excursions to the Continent, clubs, the virus, housing projects, addiction, and football ('fitba'). There is one large subplot that speeds the action along in a very cinematic way (at one point uncharacteristically bordering on cheeky Hollywood), but the story never falls far from the grit and dark, rich humor provided by the major characters. The plot is full of smart and unexpected swerves that play with different perspectives on events from the same time vantage. Names of minor characters and those of their families are dropped and then spotted later, creating the feeling of being in a shared interconnected world with the same references as the characters. Like sharing a neighborhood pub in lower Leith, Welsh puts you directly into his world. (There is even a short train ride cameo by Renton from Trainspotting as he returns to Scotland. Hints of a sequel?)

Glue sees Welsh playing with many of the themes he has dealt with before, but also some new ones, especially the nature and crises associated with fame and success, as three of the book's characters excel in some aspect of showbiz. Welsh's sense of the falseness and pressures of this world are thrown into sharp relief by the story of Gally, the local tragedy who was also a best mate. If a moral to Glue exists, it is that the cosmic sticky stuff that keeps you tied to your friends and family and class roots must be maintained against the pressures toward "success" in a greedy age. And in this sense Welsh is very much a political writer. He is not a political writer despite all of the pills and bloody love in his books, but rather because of it. For this is how most people get by day to day, how they help maintain themselves and their relationships against hostile forces. It may not be the world you live in, but it's the world Welsh lived in, once upon a time. And in making this world breathe so vividly, I think he has done something beautiful.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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